Tuesday, Dec 23, 2014, 1:17 AM CST – China


Fix the problem, not the image

City authorities do very little to provide affordable accommodation. This is particularly problematic while the central leadership is advocating a new policy of “people-oriented” urbanization.

Although extreme news stories are not a rarity in China, many were still shocked by a report that appeared early December 2013 in the Beijing Morning Post that there were people living beneath the streets of the country’s capital.

The manholes in which these people had made their homes were meant for the use of the city’s heating and drainage maintenance workers, and were typically three to four meters deep with about three square meters of floorspace. According to the report, those living underground were marginalized groups such as migrant workers and homeless elderly people. Some of them had been living in their manholes for 20 years.

For several days, the topic attracted intense public debate, and caused an outcry over the city’s welfare system. The authorities, embarrassed by the report, reacted swiftly. But instead of helping those living underground, the government decided to seal the holes with concrete. Unable to return to their underground homes, many were forced to take shelter in a nearby shed for security guards. The next day, the shed, too, was removed.

The authorities claimed that their decision was made out of safety concerns. Though technically legal, the way the authorities addressed the issue reflects their longstanding approach in dealing with issues related to marginalized groups: instead of addressing the problem in question, the authorities tend to focus on how to prevent incidents from attracting further media attention.

Similar scenarios have been uncovered in other cities. In Guangzhou, coverage of the living conditions of migrant workers sheltering under road bridges earned much sympathy from local residents. Local authorities reacted by installing hundreds of small conical concrete protrusions on the ground, making it impossible to sleep there.

The same mentality also prevails regarding other related issues. As housing prices in big cities have become prohibitively expensive, not only poor migrant workers, but also recent college graduates often find it difficult to find an affordable place to live. The result is the emergence of what have come to be known as “ant tribes:” young people living in ant colony-like conditions.

In Beijing, the authorities decided to demolish the suburb of Tangjialing, a major habitat for the city’s ant tribes. Dai Haifei, a migrant architect, designed a small, mobile, egg-shaped home to suit the needs of the group, but the Beijing authorities labeled it an illegal structure and ordered it to be demolished or taken away. The authorities believe that hampering these attempts to cope with the difficulty of finding shelter in China’s cities will prevent the issue from becoming a focal point in the future.

In the meantime, city authorities do very little to provide affordable accommodation. This is particularly problematic while the central leadership is advocating a new policy of “people-oriented” urbanization.

The authorities must realize that it is this apathy towards people’s welfare that underlines the high tension between those who live in cities and those who manage them. The authorities can attempt to suppress the media attention surrounding a certain problem, but the problem will continue to take its toll on people’s welfare and the authorities’ legitimacy, posing a threat not only to the country’s much-vaunted efforts towards urbanization, but also to the future social and political stability of the whole of society.


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